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Oliver Jeffers: ‘I don’t always stick to my schedules–you can’t plan creativity.’

Oliver JeffersOliver Jeffers has produced paintings, decorated a giant Easter egg, and most notably, created picture books. We sat with Jeffers to talk about getting published, artist’s block, and more. Check out the highlights from our interview below…

Q: How did you land your first book deal?
A: Self-confidence is hugely important in this endeavor. It’s more likely you’ll hear lots of ‘No’s before you hear a ‘Yes’, so you have to believe in what you’ve created. I’d done my research and I felt my work could contend with what existed in the shops. My first step was investigating where to send my manuscript. I bought a Writers/Artists Yearbook and also checked which publishers represented my favorite picture books.

My next step was to figure out exactly what to send them. There are hundreds and thousands of unsolicited ideas that reach publishers every year- the slush pile, and my objective was to stand out among those. To be noticed. By asking, I found out what publishers like to see in a proposal for a new book. They are looking for a manuscript and a few samples of the illustrations, a broad idea of the feel for the book.

I invested a bit of money into producing 100 copies of a small spiral bound ‘sample’, consisting of the manuscript followed by 10 full colour illustrations. I packed them up in envelopes with a letter outlining who I was and what I was trying to do, as well as a self addressed envelope for them to contact me. These days an email address would probably be more efficient. I also included a small portfolio (and I mean small, 8 prints that were 14 cm square each) of other examples of my paintings and illustrations in the hope that if a particular publisher didn’t pick up on my book idea, at least I might be able to get a few commissions while I was waiting.

I made some phone calls and discovered who looked after children’s division in each publishing house, and addressed my envelope to them to ensure it would arrive at a real persons desk- instead of some anonymous slush pile. I spent a while drawing up a big chart showing which publishers I had sent an envelope to, contact name and number, date last contacted, and room for comments. I sent an envelope to the 10 biggest publishers in the UK, and the 10 biggest in USA, figuring I’d start at the top and work my way down.

Expecting a healthy dose of being ignored and avoided, I was extremely surprised when I received a phone call from HarperCollins the next afternoon expressing their desire to publish my book. It arrived on the desk of a young editorial assistant; she opened it, liked what she saw, and immediately decided to do something about it. That offer was followed a week later by one from Philomel Books, a subdivision of Penguin in New York City, where something similar happened. And it was as simple as that. Simple in that they both liked what they saw. I met with both Publishers, and between the three of us we were able to devise a cunning plan that would enable both of them to publish the book.

Although I was very fortunate, I had set myself an objective and was quite methodical and logical in my efforts to get there. Like most businesses, I had an idea, I developed it, then invested time, thought, and money in selling it. In the past, you have published books where you collaborated with a writer. You have also worked on books where you serve as both writer and artist (e.g. Once Upon an Alphabet). Can you talk about the differences in the creation process? The collaborative process is nothing new to me, and definitely extends beyond my bookmaking (my studio is presently within an interdisciplinary art center- so I am constantly surrounded by my creative peers). Illustrating someone else’s manuscript is an entirely different enterprise to both writing and illustrating your own book. The main difference is that when working on someone else’s manuscript, you are presented with a finished set of words, with not so much opportunity to let the art do the storytelling.

When writing and illustrating my own books I have the opportunity to have the words be informed by the pictures, to show something rather than say it. I always swore I would not consider looking at someone else’s manuscript, as I enjoy too much having full control with my own books. However, if an idea comes along that’s just too good to pass up—which was the case with Drew Daywalt’s The Day the Crayons Quit—then never say never.

Q: In your opinion, what’s the best way to self-edit?
A: Read a lot. Craft your editing eye by exploring what you like and dislike of what’s ‘out there’. You’ll gain a sense of your taste and voice, and also have a means of measuring what you want to bring to the table.

Also, giving yourself enough breathing space from something, enough time to be able to look with fresh eyes, is incredibly beneficial. If something jars on a re read, it probably does for a reason.

Q: How do you tackle writer’s block/artist’s block?
A: My current struggle isn’t a lack of ideas; it’s finding the means of accomplishing them. If in the next ten years I got around to all the concepts I put in my sketchbook last year, I’d be in great shape. When I do get stalled, it’s usually because I have too many projects and simply can’t decide where to start. When this happens I tend to turn to my love of list making. We’ve got tons of journals, calendars and even a giant chalkboard in the studio precisely for this purpose. However, I don’t always stick to my schedules–you can’t plan creativity. If I’m not feeling productive I’ll just take a break and come back to it. If I’m stuck on a creative issue, I find that when I go and work on something completely different is when the answer will present myself to me.

Q: What’s next for you?
A: My largest picture book to date, Once Upon an Alphabet (totaling 112 pages!), is going to be released in October. I also am extremely excited about some collaborations I have coming up, including a book with Eoin Colfer.

(Photo Credit: Malcom Brown)

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